racism

On Identity Politics (Martin Luther King Day, 2023)

This Martin Luther King Day, I decided to adapt something I wrote as part of a longer piece on racism. The piece was written mainly for white people to reflect on, because I can only speak from my experience as a white male.

I’ve encountered a number of (white) Buddhist practitioners who argue strongly against “identify politics,” claiming that it’s fundamentally opposed to the Buddha’s teaching.

But what is “identity politics”? In The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory, Satya Mohanty, a professor of English, whose specialties include colonial and postcolonial studies, describes it as “joint political action by individuals who feel themselves united by membership in a marginalized social category (ethnicity, gender, class, religion) that gives them common political interests.”

By that definition, the civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and gay pride are all examples of identity politics.

Distorted Understandings of Identity Politics

Often what spiritual practitioners argue against is very different from what Mohanty describes. For example, in an online discussion one Western Buddhist stated that identity politics means that “the most important thing about a person is the group to which they belong, not their individuality.” Another, having said something very similar, went on to add, “identity politics is about classifying people into groups, and praising them, criticizing or condemning them because of their specific group identities.”

It seems that the more opposed people are to identity politics, the more different their definition of it is from the academic one. The more opposed they are to it, the more they include negative attributes in their definitions. Often what they describe not only doesn’t correspond to formal definitions, but to what we see happening on the ground — in the organizations that campaign for rights for marginalized groups or in the individual lives of people who support those groups.

For example, I’ve never come across an individual from a minority ethnic group who says that the most important thing about them is their ethnicity. Usually they regard the most important things about them as their being a parent, or being a spouse, and so on. Usually people feel affinities for other groupings as well as their ethnicity, based on class, religion, profession, etc. These are also an important part of their sense of who they are.

In general most people do not go around obsessing about what race they are. Our race is something we become aware of when we’re forced to, and one of the ways this commonly happens is when someone behaves in a racist way toward us. A Black or Asian person being asked by a white person, “But where do you really come from?”, or being stopped by the police for the second time in a week is forced into an awareness of their ethnicity. The more unfair or discriminatory a society is, the more those on the receiving end are to have to be aware of their ethnicity.

Also, only a tiny minority of people in groups that have been denied their rights are set on claiming that one group is inherently better than others. People from ethnic minorities almost all want equality.

There are two specific concerns with identity politics in the comments I quoted above.

Concern 1: Identity Politics Subsumes Individuality

This first is that people will subsume their individuality in group membership, presumably ceasing to think for themselves and instead having a tribal identity. Tribalism is a common problem with other political movements. It’s certainly not unique to the situation that marginalized groups find themselves in. And it’s certainly not inevitable when campaigning for equal rights that people will adopt group-think, any more than happens in other political movements. I’ve yet to see anyone arguing against identity politics produce any evidence that a loss of individuality is peculiar to people who have been discriminated against, who point to that discrimination as wrong, and who call for change.

Observing that you are a member of a group that has been marginalized or oppressed may or may not involve tribalism. Tribalism involves seeing one’s own tribe as good and other tribes as bad. But the purpose of identity politics is not to become dominant over other groups, it’s to gain the equality that’s been denied. The group doing the oppressing is not usually seen as being inherently bad, but as behaving in an unskillful way.

The point of demanding equality is to pressure or encourage the oppressive group to give up unskillful behaviors and to treat others as equals. This would not be possible if the oppressing group was inherently evil. In fact it recognizes that the oppressive group is inherently redeemable.

Of course people are people, and it’s inevitable that some people who embrace identity politics will have unskillful attitudes towards groups that oppress them. The surprising thing for me is how rare this is. That oppressed people generally want equality rather than vengeance is a testament to the high level of basic goodness that exists in the average human heart.

Concern 2: Assumptions of Superiority and Inferiority

The second specific concern is that those practicing identity politics see themselves as being better than other groups because of their status as victims of oppression. I’ve known plenty of individuals who are not minorities who carry a sense that the world is against them, and who seem to identify as victims, gaining some sense of “specialness” from that. And no doubt there are some people from marginalized groups who similarly cling to a sense of grievance and victimization. But the key thing is that discrimination and oppression do exist, and the important thing is to create a fairer world. To look for things to blame in oppressed individuals is hardly helpful, especially if one isn’t also placing even more emphasis on criticizing those doing the oppressing.

Both these fears — individuality being subsumed by group identities, and assumptions of superiority and inferiority — may sometimes, in some individuals, be true. But they’re not inherent in what identity politics is.

Those particular dangers are potentially there every time you participate in a group enterprise. For example I might describe myself as a Buddhist and become part of a spiritual community. And as a result I might decide that my identity as a member of that spiritual community is the most important thing about me. I might take on ideas without thinking about them. I might agree with the viewpoints of leaders rather than thinking for myself. Being a Buddhist can undermine your individuality in favor of a group identity. And of course I might consider my chosen group to be the best Buddhist group, and Buddhism generally to be better than other religions.

Being a Buddhist can be a practice of “identity politics” in this distorted sense. But it’s clear we don’t have to fall prey to those traps. We can be Buddhist and also maintain our individuality and not get caught up in what Buddhism calls “superiority conceit.”

I find myself wondering how people who are discriminated against because of their ethnicity, skin color, or gender could possibly find equality without first recognizing that they are part of a group that is subject to discrimination, and then highlight this discrimination and demand equality. This is how change happens. People identifying themselves as part of a group that’s discriminated against is a necessary step toward equality.

White Identity Politics

The concerns  that your membership of a particular racial group is the most important thing about you, and the belief that your racial group is superior to the majority racial group that is oppressing you, are in fact a very accurate description of racism.

And it strikes me that it’s white people who have historically been most obsessed about their ethnicity and the ethnicity of others. In other words, the most common form of “identity politics” (in a negative sense) may be white identity politics. This isn’t classic identity politics, since white people as a whole are not an oppressed minority, although many have seen themselves as the victims, or potential victims of other races, who were “the white man’s burden,” in Kipling’s words.

White racists see themselves as being special because of their whiteness. This sense of specialness gives them a sense of superiority compared to other groups.

It should go without saying that not all white people actively oppress or hate other races, but this attitude of superiority is very common.

“The Most Important Thing About a Person”

It was white people who invented (and kept redefining) the concept of whiteness.

Whiteness was the “the most important thing about a person” when the Supreme Court decided that black people could not be considered citizens. The most important thing about a person was their race when it came to many facets of life, from who you could marry to whether you could drink from a particular water fountain.

Even today, a person’s whiteness or non-whiteness is often the most important thing about for an employer when it comes to considering them for a job. Studies show that résumés submitted with “white names” (e.g. Ryan Jones) are more likely to receive replies than identical résumés with “black names” (for example Leroy Jones). For a policemen, a driver’s color is often the most important thing about them when it comes to deciding whether to pull them over. Black people are stopped, on average, one and a half times more often than white drivers, although this discrepancy vanishes at night, when it’s harder to see a driver’s race.

Race, in many times and places, has overwhelmingly been the most important thing about a person, as judged by white people. Not all white people, to be sure, but enough so that entire societies have had laws and constitutions based on the concept of racial superiority, designed to keep white people in a superior social and economic position. That is what racism is. It’s not simply disliking or resenting people of another race. It’s racial oppression.

This history of racism in the west is the history of white identify politics and of white assumptions of superiority leading to racial oppression. The history of anti-racism is the history of resistance to white identity politics and white assumptions of superiority, and resistance to racial oppression.

Because attitudes of superiority by white people have created oppression, ethnic minorities have been forced to band together to protect themselves and demand equal rights. This is  “identity politics.” And this is what some white people claim is a bad thing. These (white) people rarely talk about white assumptions of superiority, and how they create the need for identity politics.

Martin Luther King’s Dream

Buddhist critics of identity politics (or their own distorted idea of it) often point to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream: that one day his children would be judged by the contents of their characters rather than the color of their skin. It sometimes seems it’s the only quote of his that they know.

They claim that King’s approach was one of advocating “color-blindness.” They see this as very different from identity politics, which, in an academic definition is “joint political action by individuals who feel themselves united by membership in a marginalized social category.” But what King did was precisely to take “joint political action” with others who were oppressed (along with white allies, of course).

Achieving equality, in King’s eyes, was to come about through “militancy” —  through struggling against the forces of racism.

King talked of a “Negro community” that existed in relation to “white people.” He wasn’t color-blind:

We must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.

He was very aware the struggle needed white allies, but he also complained that even white so-called allies could be a hindrance:

I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.”

(Incidentally, King wrote the above words from prison, which is why I’ve used his mugshot as an illustration.)

Martin Luther King’s dream didn’t depend upon people simply on ignoring race or pretending that race doesn’t exist. It depended on people (white and black) acknowledging oppression and actually standing up against it. For “white moderates” this meant getting to the point of caring about the plight of black people enough to actually do something.

“The white moderate” may have had no hatred toward Black people, but they were, King observed, more attached to “order” than in seeing change come about. Change is always turbulent. It’s socially turbulent because people are forced to protest. It’s personally turbulent because we who don’t care enough have to overcome our apathy and stand with the oppressed. And this means accepting uncomfortable truths about ourselves.

Those who are against identity politics often seem to resemble the white moderates King criticized. But then again, many of us do. As a white Dharma practitioner I feel it’s my responsibility to recognize not just active oppression and discrimination, but the passivity and complacency that allows oppression and discrimination to continue to ruin the lives of entire communities of people. Some of that passivity is mine. I need to recognize it, own it, overcome it, and so become actively opposed to racism and an active supporter of those who are subject to racism.

Read More

How mindfulness can defeat racial bias

wildmind meditation newsRhonda Magee, GGSC: When I was promoted to tenured full professor, the dean of my law school kindly had flowers sent to me at my home in Pacific Heights, an overpriced San Francisco neighborhood almost devoid of black residents. I opened the door to find a tall, young, African-American deliveryman who announced, “Delivery for Professor Magee.” I, a petite black woman, dressed for a simple Saturday spent in my own home, reached for the flowers saying, “I am Professor Magee.”

The deliveryman looked down at the order and back up …

Read the original article »

Read More

The path of nonviolence: six principles of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr

Sunada drew my attention to this detailed exposition by Dr. King on the principles and practice of nonviolence. I thought it was worth reposting in its entirety, especially given the levels of violence being directed against the Occupy protestors, and the need for the movement to remain nonviolent:

First, it must be emphasized that nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist. If one uses this method because he is afraid or merely because he lacks the instruments of violence, he is not truly nonviolent. This is why Gandhi often said that if cowardice is the only alternative to violence, it is better to fight … The method is passive physically, but strongly active spiritually. It is not passive nonresistance to evil, it is active nonviolent resistance to evil.

A second basic fact that characterizes nonviolence is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that these are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent … The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.

A third characteristic of this method is that the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil … We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be unjust.

A fourth point that characterizes nonviolent resistance is a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation, to accept blows from the opponent without striking back. ‘Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood,’ Gandhi said to his countrymen. The nonviolent resister … does not seek to dodge jail. If going to jail is necessary, he enters it ‘as a bridegroom enters the bride’s chamber…’ “What is the nonviolent resister’s justification for this ordeal to which he invites men, for this mass political application of the ancient doctrine of turning the other cheek?” The answer is found in the realization that unearned suffering is redemptive. Suffering, the nonviolent resister realizes, has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.

A fifth point concerning nonviolent resistance is that it avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love …

A sixth basic fact about nonviolent resistance is that it is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Consequently, the believer in nonviolence has deep faith in the future. This faith is another reason why the nonviolent resister can accept suffering without retaliation. For he knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship… a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.

–Martin Luther King. Jr., in Stride Towards Freedom

Read More

Noise, traffic, animal sacrifice (yes, really). These are the objections put up to block Buddhist groups

news
2 Comments

Here at Wildmind we’ve reported on several Buddhist organizations that have faced strenuous opposition to establishing or expanding Buddhist centers. Usually the objections are supposedly about traffic, noise (meditation being a notoriously noisy activity), and in one case, the perceived nuisance of animal sacrifice.

John Pappas, a blogger at Elephant Journal, has collated a handy list of groups that have faced such planning objections:

  1. Berkeley Thai Buddhist temple ~ Asian Pacific Americans for Progress
  2. Vietnamese Buddhist Temple (Lansing, MI) ~ The State News
  3. Bat Nha Meditation Institute (Los Angeles, CA) ~ LA Times
  4. Yuan Yung Retreat Center (Rowland Hieghts, CA) ~ Buddhist Channel
  5. Dau Trang Minh Dang Quang Temple (Utica, NY) ~ WickedLocal
  6. Cambodian Buddhist Society of Connecticut (Newtown, Conn.) ~ The Newtown Bee
  7. Aram Buddhist Temple (Olive Township, MI) ~ The Holland Sentinel
  8. Chung Tai Zen Center (Walnut, CA) ~ God Discussion
  9. Dai Dang Monastery (Camino del Rey, CA) ~ North County Times
  10. Tam-Bao Buddhist Temple (Tulsa, OK) ~ Tulsa World
  11. Virginia Beach Temple (Virginia Beach, VA) ~ Hampton Roads

We can add to that list a homeless Vietnamese Zen group, led by Minh Cong Nguyen, which faced planning objections in Pelahatchie, Mississippi.

As John points out, “All of these issues brought up by citizens were with primarily Asian American sanghas.” He’s been unable to find any predominately non-Asian temple or Zen Center that has been hit with the same road-blocks. That’s been my own finding as we’ve reposted news stories on Wildmind.

As John goes on to point out, the inescapable conclusion of this is that there is a pattern of racism. It seem clear that planning objections are being used by the white, Christian population’s way of keeping their areas ethnically homogenous.

UPDATED

There have also been some recorded incidents of vandalism at Buddhist centers. In some cases these may be simple theft or casual vandalism, but in others, such as at the Phuoc Hau Temple in South Louisville, Kentucky (see image) there’s an element of at least religious, if not outright racist, hatred.

Arun at the Angry Asian blog, started keeping a map of incidents he read about, although fortunately there are only four pins in his Google Map.

Read More

For seven years, monks have had no peace

Vandalism has plagued a Buddhist temple near Rochester, Minnesota, for seven years. Neighbors and police are outraged and baffled.

A chorus of chirping crickets and the smashed shell of a mailbox greet Chhan Aun when he steps out the door of his monk’s residence at the hilltop Buddhist temple southeast of Rochester.

“We are quiet and peaceful; we try to pray for good things, not bad,” he said, wrapped in his orange robe, as a former monk translates his Cambodian words. “We don’t understand why people are doing things like this.”

This month’s busted mailbox is the latest in a seven-year string of vandalism that has jarred the four monks who live on the grassy, rolling, 10.5-acre site they chose for tranquil reflection.

Someone sprayed-painted “Jesus Saves” and a cross on their driveway last May. Dozens of lights have been broken and stolen. Flowers and trees have been yanked from the earth. Instead of studying the teachings of Buddha, the monks have been installing motion-detecting lights and asking the Postal Service to approve moving their mailbox down from 29th Street and closer to their house.

“One night at 2 a.m., a group of four or five people were outside and I shined my flashlight in their face,” said Aun, 63. “They never confront us face to face; they just run away.”

Neighbors and police are outraged and baffled at what would motivate the vandals to harass such gentle men, some of whom, including Aun, lived through the Cambodian genocide of the late-1970s Khmer Rouge killing fields.

“They believe in peace and tranquility, and they sure don’t deserve this,” said Glenda Bale, who moved into the quiet residential area in 2003, just as the temple construction was completed and the monks moved in next door from their former downtown location.

Back then, her place was an overgrown “jungle,” and as she worked to clear the lot, the monks would bring with food offerings. They invite Bale to all their celebrations.

Her friend’s unlocked car was broken into once and papers were scattered. The monks say they’ve been struck three or four times a year since they arrived.

“For this stuff to only happen to them is totally uncalled for,” said Bale, 47. “You couldn’t ask for better neighbors, honestly.”

Police cite six documented cases of criminal damage to property since last May, but the monks say the harassment dates to a group of aggressive opponents speaking out against the temple at city zoning meetings before the two temple structures were built. Opponents’ concerns about increased traffic congestion have proven to be completely unfounded, Bale said.

“We have absolutely no idea as to why these people are doing this,” said Sgt. Scott Behrns of the Olmsted County Sheriff’s Department. “We’re confident we’ll catch the people doing it; it’s just a matter of how long it takes.”

Deputies have stepped up patrols in the neighborhood, and if arrests are made, Behrns said prosecutors will be asked to use state laws that target bias-motivated crimes. That could mean elevating misdemeanor charges into gross misdemeanors or felonies.

“Based on the way the crimes are occurring, one would think it’s the same” person or people behind the vandalism, said Behrns, who thinks a baseball bat was used to destroy the mailbox earlier this month.

Community meeting slated

Rochester’s Buddhist Support Society serves roughly 500 people, mostly Cambodian refugees who fled during the Vietnam War era and emigrated to Minnesota. The group owns the temple and recruits monks from Cambodia who make minimum five-year commitments to study, pray and teach at the hilltop temple.

Aun said that the destroyed mailbox, in itself, is not a big deal.

“But if they try to set fire to our buildings or hurt the monks, that would make us upset,” he said.

He’s speaking out despite some concerns that the vandals will relish the publicity.

“We want to show the community that we are doing something,” he said. “It is 98 percent positive to get the word out and maybe two percent negative.”

About 20 concerned citizens, mostly members of Rochester Meditation Center, met at the temple last Sunday, and a larger meeting is scheduled for June 3 at 4 p.m. Members of Rochester’s Diversity Council, teenage youth groups, local church members and representatives of the police-sponsored Neighborhood Watch program will look for ways to enhance understanding about Buddhism and curb the vandalism.

Until then, Aun and his fellow monks will do what they came to Rochester to do. They will sit on pillows on the floor, surrounded by colorful paintings of Buddhist scenes, and recite prayers of loving kindness to the perpetrators of the vandalism.

“They know what they are doing is not right,” Aun said. “We will pray for them to do good things instead of bad.”

[Curt Brown, Star Tribune]
Read More
Menu